PEORIA — Illinois — a state that’s no stranger to budget crises — may be headed for another one.
Illinois communities are having trouble keeping up with mounting public safety costs.
In Peoria, the salaries of police officers and firefighters have risen 50 percent since 2005, said Ted Dabrowski, vice president for policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, a think tank with offices in Springfield and Chicago.
The annual median salary in 2005 was $26,000 for the private sector in Peoria and $58,000 for Peoria’s police and fire. By 2016, the median salary was $30,400 in the private sector and $87,000 for police and fire in Peoria.
“We could debate what level police and fire should be paid, but there’s no debate about how fast their salaries have gone up, compared to the private sector,” Dabrowski said.
Already dealing with a $7.9 million deficit for the 2017 budget year, Peoria city officials face a major obstacle as they work on a budget for 2018 and 2019. Personnel is the biggest single cost in the city budget, and the biggest share of those personnel costs involves public safety positions.
“The fundamental issue for municipalities across Illinois is that police and fire have interest arbitration. This means they have given up the right to strike for binding arbitration,” said Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich.
“This means if the parties are at an impasse, they select an arbitrator. The arbitrator, not the City Council, would make the decision,” he said.
“This is what happened a couple of years ago with the police. Most often, the arbitration decisions have been to labor’s benefit,” Urich said. “The unions would have to agree to any concession. Absent concessions, our only way to control these costs is through the number of police officers and firefighters we employ.”
Rick Waldron, president of Peoria Firefighters Local 50, said salaries for firefighters are based on comparable municipalities throughout the state. “The salaries of professional firefighters nationwide are based on the fact that ours is a high-hazard profession,” he said.
But salaries aren’t the only cost involved with public safety positions. Overtime pay pushes public safety costs even higher. According to city information numbers, several Peoria police officers made more than $40,000 in overtime alone in 2015, the latest figure available.
Overtime costs were highlighted in a Chicago Sun-Times report that found that 25,000 city employees in Chicago were paid $309 million in overtime in 2016. That report added that nine of the top 10 highest-paid city employees in Chicago were employees of either the police or fire department.
Higher salaries mean higher pension costs, Urich said. “Our pension costs for public safety amount to nearly 45 percent of the salary of a police officer or firefighter. It is less for a non-public safety employee,” he said.
Other cities across Illinois are also struggling to cope with mounting public safety pensions. In Decatur, almost 52 percent of the city’s property tax revenue goes toward fire and police pensions.
In the Springfield area, four police and fire pension funds paid out $26 million in benefits to 484 retirees in 2016 while those funds lost $12 million on their investments, according to the Sangamon Sun, which noted that $19 million in Sangamon County property taxes subsidized those pension funds last year.
“Pension benefits are based on an individual’s final salary. If there’s not enough money, taxpayers have to fill the gap,” Dabrowski said.
In 2014, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis joined 25 Illinois mayors in Chicago to call for a solution to the pension issue. “Soaring pension costs aren’t just a Chicago issue or a state issue. Fire and police pension systems are suffocating the budgets of every town, village and city in Illinois,” he said.
Quincy Mayor Kyle Moore told the Herald-Whig newspaper in 2016 that cities in Illinois will never be able to adequately manage pensions as long as state officials refuse to pass reforms.
State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, said the matter of spiraling public safety costs needs to be negotiated. “We need to get all parties at the table — unions, the Illinois Municipal League, Democrats, Republicans — and find a compromise solution,” he said. “It’s the same process as the state budget. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already, but how many priorities can you have on the table at once?”
Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.